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How Gustave Flaubert captured the turbulent politics of his age

The great French writer loathed corruption, but he didn’t much like people power either.

Sooner or later, virtually every piece of literary lore is dragged from the popular imagination, stripped of impunity and ritually debunked. For a long time, every­one was busy enjoying Coleridge’s story about the knock on the door that ruined “Kubla Khan” – hunting for a moral, smarting with vicarious frustration. Then biographers arrived to spoil the fun, pointing to the absence of an unwanted visitor from the first version of Coleridge’s preface, wondering what “a person on business” could want with a poet on opium that he would travel more than 20 miles and then detain him for an hour. And you know the one about Jack Kerouac, stabbing out his novel on a hundred-foot “scroll” during a punctuation-phobic three-week Benzedrine haze? Try: years of drafting, yards of Scotch tape, caffeine, commas.

The latest candidate for this treatment is the composition of Gustave Flaubert’s first novel, Madame Bovary, which was serialised (and censored) in 1856. At the end of the previous decade, Flaubert spent 32 hours over a four-day period reading aloud the manuscript of his Oriental epic, The Temptation of St Antony. The audience, his friends Maxime Du Camp and Louis Bouilhet, kept their silence until the last full stop, at which point they advised him to stick it in a drawer. The novel’s story was excessive, they said, and its language cloyingly romantic. Instead, they advised that Flaubert should look for a tale of ordinary life – what Michel Winock, in his excellent new biography, calls “a down-to-earth subject, in the style of Balzac”. Bouilhet proposed the case of the Delamares, a bourgeois couple who had killed themselves in quick succession.

After some initial push-back, Flaubert embraced the task with vigour. He set about writing a novel about a farmer’s daughter educated beyond her natural intelligence who marries a country doctor but, itching for a grander life, soon becomes mired in debt and sexual scandal. Then, having settled on a story so far from what he called “the mythological and theological extravagances of Saint Antony”, he sought a voice and a tone to suit these restraints, free of what he called “grand turns of phrase . . . the dazzling bursts of style, in short everything I like”.

Character took precedence; the author, he decided, should resemble God in the universe (“present everywhere and visible nowhere”). His solution was an approach nowadays known as free indirect style, a regimented, highly implicit, outwardly impersonal – though often slyly ironic – form of third person, which accommodates a character’s impressions without quoted speech or thought (this is why it is indirect) and without the tag “he said” or “he thought” (this why it is free).

There was to be no metaphor, no moralising, but also nothing that would offend his tastes. “May I die like a dog rather than hurry by a single second a sentence that isn’t ripe!” he wrote in 1852. To this end, Flaubert composed the novel “pianissimo”, as he put it, one phoneme at a time. He also yelled the results until his throat was raw.

The vision of the towering, walrus-like Flaubert, in his study at Croisset, or in the family garden, day after day, pacing and twitching and belting out passages, ears pricked for idle pronouns and prepositions, ought to be too pathetic, unglamorous and exhaustively well documented to attract the same killjoy, cold-water tendencies as Coleridge’s curtailed daydream and Kerouac’s sleepless bender. Unlike those stories about literary labour, Flaubert’s “gueuloir” (his term for the yelling) is immersed in the idea of writing as a challenge and a craft.

The martyr of literary style – Water Pater’s phrase – is not a role that many would audition for. John McPhee, in “Draft No 4”, the title essay of a forthcoming book on “the writing process”, recalls that when he learned about Flaubert’s struggles during an eighth-grade English class, he considered him to be “heroic”, but saw that most kids found him “weird”.

And Flaubert didn’t compose a public mythology about his habits, in prefaces or prime-time interviews. He confessed his woes (“I sometimes eliminate sentences that took me several entire days”) in a series of letters to his on-off lover Louise Colet and, when things were off, Louis Bouilhet – correspondence that he had no way of guessing would be published within a decade of his death, achieve unrivalled fame in the annals of literary self-portraiture and become a manifesto- cum-manual for at least two generations of European novelists.

Yet a process of chipping away has started to take place, revealing Flaubert not as a fraud but as a failure on his own terms. Michael Fried, in his 2012 book Flaubert’s “Gueuloir”, noted that the writing in Madame Bovary is full of the kind of repeated syllables the novelist yearned to stop at the gate. This is not iconoclastic, or particularly new. Going back, Flaubert’s followers have loved his writing without needing to believe in its perfection. Proust wrote an essay defending Flaubert’s style, but his earlier pastiche clearly associates him with flamboyant metaphors and the alliteration of “P” sounds. Fried worships Flaubert, and he mounts an intricate argument about the creative unconscious – style as a mixture of will and habit – to explain how the guilty words crept in. The martyr didn’t die for nothing; he just didn’t die for what he thought he died for.

The dominant modes in current Flaubert studies are squarely and unbashedly literary. There’s a lot of “genetic criticism” – the study of drafts, manuscript and notebooks, the so-called avant-textes. A French critic has considered the use of the semi­colon in his final, unfinished novel, Bouvard and Pécuchet, in which a pair of copy clerks engage in a vast intellectual project that proves to be no more than a series of rabbit holes. Michael Fried’s close-up study is certainly in this vein, but his desire to show that Madame Bovary contains sentences in which the syllable “-ait” figures more than once is also consistent with a wider effort to absolve the novel of the sin of aestheticism and to turn Flaubert into a different kind of writer.

Michel Winock describes his book Flaubert as “a historian’s biography” and an attempt to depict “the life of a man in his century”, and William Olmsted, in his book The Censorship Effect, published last year, argues that Flaubert wasn’t ignorant of his “socio-economic context” but anticipated and even outwitted the displeasure of the censor by using free indirect style as a kind of shelter, putting transgressive ideas into the thoughts of characters who, as likely as not, meet an unhappy end. (The avant-textes enabled Olmsted to trace adjustments of phrasing and emphasis.)

A similar process took place with Henry James back in the 1980s, a practically military manoeuvre that, in the words of one literary historian, “saw the image of the ivory-tower aesthete crumble with great rapidity”. The Flaubert enterprise is less urgent and pointed, the fruit not of a collective project but of a desire to tweak one – though central – aspect of his popular reputation. The aim is to show not that Flaubert didn’t care about words but that he didn’t care about them in quite the way that he (and we) thought he did, and to the exclusion of everything else.

Reviewing Tony Tanner’s Adultery in the Novel – a study containing an exceptional book-length chapter on Madame Bovary – Frank Kermode wondered whether academic books trailing knotty theses “will ever make much contribution to the common wisdom”. In this case, the answer is: not really. Fried and Olmsted make a number of cogent and even ingenious claims. But at this late stage of history – more than 160 years after the novel’s publication – it would require more than good criticism to make the writing of Madame Bovary represent anything other than sweat and tears secreted in a vacuum. (Flaubert said that during his gueuloir sessions he almost spat blood, but not quite.) In Winock’s “Compendium of Flaubert Quotations”, provided at the end of his biography, there are fewer entries under “History” than there are quotations on “Style” from the early 1850s. The Bovary letters retain their resonance. Some lore just won’t budge.

But there is a Flaubert novel that makes easier work of constructing a modern, outward-looking figure. Written at greater speed, based on first-hand observation and empirical research, coinciding with a far more newsy series of letters to a female correspondent (the novelist George Sand) and displaying a more public character, Sentimental Education picks up Frédéric Moreau on his way to Paris, when he falls in love with a married woman he doesn’t know, and follows him over the next few years, which he spends not consummating his passion, not becoming a lawyer and not properly engaging with the social upheaval that culminates in the 1848 revolution.


In his new study, Flaubert in the Ruins of Paris: the Story of a Friendship, a Novel, and a Terrible Year, Peter Brooks, a renowned academic critic writing here for a popular readership, uses the image of Flaubert’s well-honed political antennae as the conceptual basis for a biography of the novelist’s later years, starting near the end of the 1860s, when Sentimental Education was published (to little acclaim), passing through Flaubert’s experience of 1870-72, during which he wrote furiously and “incessantly” to George Sand, and ending with his death, aged 58, in 1880.

There is fairly little in the book about language or writing. According to Brooks, the central drama of this period, for Flaubert as for France, was the fallout from the Franco-Prussian War between Louis-Napoléon and Bismarck, which Louis-Napoléon provoked and then lost – the series of events that resulted in the Second Empire becoming the Third Republic under a right-wing assembly, based in Versailles, to which the socialist and feminist Paris Commune, propelled by a fear that the new republic was just imperial business as usual, rose in opposition.

This makeshift regime was backed by a citizens’ militia, the national guard, but it proved no match for the Versaillais, and when the communard forces retreated, they set fire to all they could. Following the revolution, the French people had been tossed on a succession of monarchies, empires and republics, ruled by Bonapartes, Orléans and Bourbons. The early 1870s marked the lowest point since the Terror.

Flaubert loathed corruption, but he didn’t much like people power either (he talked about “la democrasserie”). Brooks is especially taken with Flaubert’s alleged claim, when walking through the ruins with Maxime Du Camp, that if the French public had read Sentimental Education, the destruction of Paris never could have happened. In support of this contention, which he takes seriously, Brooks devotes much of the book to an energetic reading of Sentimental Education, which presents the novel’s depiction of 1848 – when Louis-Napoléon had begun his power grab – as a prophecy of mistakes just round the corner. In the hollow beginnings of the Second Empire was its bloody end, though it needn’t have been – if only the public had listened.

Brooks rehearses the argument that appeared in his well-known book Reading for the Plot (1984), in which he pitted the reality-respecting Flaubert against the crowd-pleasing Balzac, as a way of justifying why Sentimental Education can feel so unfocused, rambling, low-key and pointless. But he is more concerned here to align Flaubert with Karl Marx, another analyst of 1848 (in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte), a comparison dating at least as far back as Edmund Wilson’s essay “Flaubert’s Politics” (1937), which, Brooks claims, revealed Flaubert as something other than “an ivory-tower artist concerned only with the perfection of his style”. Out goes art, or art for art’s sake. In comes science, a term that Flaubert, like Marx, deployed in a wide sense, and that Brooks defines as “knowledge, method, wisdom, and the precise measurement of reality”.

A minor logical problem with Brooks’s embrace of Flaubert is that it looks strange alongside the belief that Flaubert really believed that a more sensitive reading of Sentimental Education might have changed things. That surely would buy into the “Romantic perceptions of agency, desire, and progress” that Flaubert was out to deny. What do you call the conviction that a book could stop a coup if not an instance of Romantic “illusionism”?

There is a critical problem, too. At a time of warring fanaticisms, Flaubert might have liked the idea of mental toughness, but in his novels he wasn’t so sure. Among the things he tried to measure with literary exactness was his characters’ pretensions to objectivity as well as their tendency to fantasise; though he established distinctions in his work between doctor and dreamer, notary and poet, these weren’t so he might hail a victor.

Flaubert certainly warned against the rule of sentiment. Emma Bovary and Frédéric Moreau are both undone by the vice sometimes called “Bovarism” – defined as both the ability to misconstrue oneself and the desire to flee mediocre reality into a world of fantasy and imagination. But after the fall of the Paris Commune, Flaubert devoted several years to writing Bouvard and Pécuchet, an attack on the encyclopaedic mentality, systematic in its critique of system-building. And some of the most appalling pages of Madame Bovary show the pursuit of medical science – a cure for club foot – resulting in an emergency amputation.

Flaubert’s cry of “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!” – though no doubt apocryphal – carries a ring of truth. He acknowledged that though obsessed with truth and eager to make you feel “almost physically” the things he reproduced, he remained “infatuated with bombast, lyricism, eagle flights, sonorities of phrase, and lofty ideas”.

Making a virtue of this internal division, Flaubert gave his romantic, beauty-seeking impulses to his characters – whom he then portrayed with stony detachment. He could recognise the appeal of both conditions, and his access to one revealed to him the vices of the other. (Brooks mentions the novelist’s unrealised portrait of the Second Empire, Under Napoleon III, but not the novel about the Battle of Thermopylae that he was more immediately contemplating when he died.)

And just as Flaubert’s writing doesn’t portray rationalism simply to embarrass Romanticism, so his writing approach upsets the dichotomies of aestheticism v realism, fastidious technique v worldly engagement. Michel Winock, despite his historian’s agenda, acknowledges what Peter Brooks seems afraid to: that his subject’s undertaking of “significant research” was compatible with “the religion of art”. Flaubert wasn’t only trying to weed out pronouns, after all. He was scouring his memory and dictionary for le mot juste – the right word for what he was burning to express, in a sober, scientific temper, about time-bound, public-facing things such as mores, morality, the failings of his generation and his species.

The perfect sentence was only an end because it was also a means. Flaubert’s true heirs are not icy aesthetes or social chroniclers but writers who treat an exacting style as a tool of evocation and analysis, the best route to confronting the real, however defined: Proust, Conrad, Kafka, Joyce. He doesn’t need rescuing from his ivory tower. It was not a hermitage but a vantage point.

Michel Winock
Harvard University Press, 560pp, £27.95

Flaubert in the Ruins of Paris: the Story of a Friendship, a Novel, and a Terrible Year
Peter Brooks
Basic Books, 288pp, £25

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn mania

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon